Response to the Education Commission Consultation Document:

" The Aims of Education "


Introduction - Education as a Fundamental Human Right

Education is important not simply as a tool for the economic development of a society, but as the process through which individuals are enabled to more fully appreciate their dignity and worth as human beings. In this respect, Hong Kong has been failing its young people for many years, treating them (to paraphrase a Chinese saying) more as ‘ducks?to be ‘stuffed?with information, than as individuals whose interests and potential need to be encouraged and ‘led out? The Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor feels that the seriousness of the problems besetting the local education system requires it to do more than simply list its own preferred set of educational aims. Rather, this extended set of comments seeks to suggest ways in which the existing arrangements for schooling need to be thoroughly overhauled if we are to provide a full, balanced and humane education for all our children.

1. The Aims of Education as proposed in the Consultation Document

There is nothing objectionable in the menu of aims suggested by the Commission in Chapter 3. However, it must be noted that official bodies with responsibility for education in Hong Kong have for many years been producing similarly worthy statements of intent, but that such statements have tended to have little or no impact on educational practice (see 2 below). The question the government needs most urgently to address is therefore not ‘What are the aims of education?? but ‘Why have many of the aims we espouse not been fulfilled in the past, and what can be done to ensure that they are fulfilled in the future??

While the individual aims listed are perfectly acceptable from a Human Rights perspective, the Monitor is concerned about the emphasis which this document, and recent government rhetoric more generally, places on concepts such as ‘team spirit? ‘cultural confidence? ‘national identity?and an understanding of ‘the present and future developments of our motherland?(Chapter 2). If such concepts are to be interpreted in a manner consistent with the need to enable each individual to be ‘ready for continuous self-learning, thinking, exploring, innovating and adapting to changes throughout life?(Chapter 3.1), then wholesale changes in Hong Kong’s education system must take place (see 3 below). Given the prevailing educational ethos in Hong Kong (see 2 below), aims such as cultivating ‘team spirit? cultural identity and understanding of the motherland will tend to reinforce an indoctrinating, uncritical pedagogical style which alienates pupils and stunts their intellectual and personal development. The goal of establishing a free, democratic and tolerant society in Hong Kong (Chapter 3.1) requires above all that the education system provide a learning environment which encourages and rewards critical thinking, and fosters in each pupil that sense of personal dignity and autonomy which is required in any responsible citizen of a liberal democracy.

2. The Faults of the Present System

i) Curriculum Content

For a city that likes to think of itself as ‘international? the content of Hong Kong’s school curriculum has an exceedingly parochial favour. This is exemplified by the English language curriculum, the textbooks for which make use largely, if not entirely, of topics focussed on Hong Kong. This misses an opportunity for using English as a vehicle for teaching students something about the world beyond Hong Kong. Indeed, the curriculum generally fails to provide students with significant opportunities for learning about cultures or societies other than their own - with the limited exception of those students who choose to study History beyond Form 3. This failure narrows students?intellectual horizons and restricts their ability to critically appraise their own culture and society.

While English is taught as a culturally-neutral communicative tool, the Chinese subjects (Chinese Language, Chinese Literature and Chinese History) tend towards cultural indoctrination. It is of course highly desirable that students learn to appreciate their own culture, but it is essential that at the same time they are encouraged to be critical of it. The typical presentation of Chinese culture and history through the Chinese subjects gives an impression of China as a monolithic, culturally uniform entity, glossing over the enormous regional, cultural and historical variety which characterize Chinese civilization and the modern Chinese state. Hong Kong’s own cultural and historical legacy, and the Cantonese language and literary tradition are undervalued. In addition, the diversity which continues to characterise Hong Kong society, with its long-established English-speaking and Indian communities, is also given little recognition across the school curriculum. Questions of the role and status of women represent another area of serious neglect. Many students seem to be unclear as to what the equality of women in our society means in practice, even if they are aware of the abstract concept of sexual equality. Meanwhile, the access of girls to subjects, such as the sciences, which are perceived as ‘male? remains inadequate.

Hong Kong students are generally required to memorise ‘correct?interpretations of China’s culture and history for regurgitation in tests and examinations. This is particularly the case in ‘Chinese History? the subject through which students would be expected to gain that greater ‘understanding of the motherland?which figures among the educational aims suggested by the Commission. It should be noted that the account of China’s past presented to students through this subject is moralising, ethnocentric, and state-centred, with little or any opportunity being offered to contest the ‘authorised version?enshrined in textbooks and examination syllabuses.

ii) Pedagogy

The ‘humanities?subjects, such as History, Chinese History, Chinese Literature, Geography, Social Studies - as well as English Language and Chinese Language - could and should function partly as vehicles for civic education through the open discussion in the classroom of contentious political, social and cultural issues. That they do not currently perform this function effectively in Hong Kong schools has perhaps less to do with subject content or with formal subject ‘aims?as laid down by the educational authorities, than it has to do with the kinds of teaching methods and conceptions of education prevalent in many local schools.

These conceptions include the deeply ingrained idea that it is one of the essential aims of education to instill habits of ‘correct thinking?in the minds of students. Students are generally taught that every question - whether academic or ethical - has one, and only one, ‘correct?or ‘model?answer. The idea that there are often many equally plausible interpretations of a situation, or a number of possible solutions to a problem, or that moral choices are not always black and white, is something that most students and many teachers seem to find it difficult to cope with. Classroom discussion, if there is any, is hardly ever open-ended, since the teacher will usually close it off with his or her ‘correct?opinion. Dissent on the part of students, or the expression of independent or original views, is not encouraged. The ability to recognise that there is more than one side to an argument - a cornerstone of any free, democratic and tolerant society - is not encouraged by the current education system. On the contrary, students may feel that their own individual opinions or judgements are of little or no value if they differ from those of the teacher.

The predominant model of learning in Hong Kong is therefore, despite the exhortations of numerous official reports over the years, far from being one of critical inquiry or of ‘exploration?on the part of students. Rather, it is one of uncritical rote-learning and memorisation of ‘facts?and received interpretations, in which, furthermore, much of the memorised information is often not actually understood by students at all. This state of affairs is exacerbated by the notoriously examination-driven nature of the local education system. The pressure on teachers to produce results not only in public examinations but also in internal school examinations and tests often dictates a dry, knowledge-delivery mode of teaching even when the individual teacher may be willing and able to experiment with more interesting and stimulating pedagogical techniques. Moreover, the pressure on students to perform well in tests and examinations conditions many of them to resist attempts at pedagogical innovation and instead to demand the ‘model answers?which they believe will get them good results.

Reforming the assessment practices used for public examinations may constitute part of the answer here. The limited use of school-based continuous assessment may help to provide a more balanced picture of students?abilities, while easing the pressure of all-or-nothing examinations to some extent. However, without more fundamental changes to the structure of schooling, whatever mode of assessment is adopted is unlikely to make a very significant difference to the immense pressures which continue to poison the educational atmosphere of Hong Kong.

iii) Systemic and Institutional Structures

The root of many of the problems with the current education system lies in the rigid system of banding for secondary school students. The practice of categorising students into five bands in terms of their test scores at the age of eleven or twelve is highly objectionable. This system effectively determines a child’s future from the age of twelve or younger, since any child who is designated a ‘Band 4?or ‘Band 5?student at this stage will be assigned a place in a ‘Band 4?or ‘Band 5?school. These schools are generally perceived by the community, as well as by their own teachers and students, as ‘sink?schools, and their students, categorised en bloc from the start as ‘low achievers?are not expected and do not themselves expect to gain any qualifications at the end of their secondary schooling. It has long been recognised that such schools serve as recruiting grounds for triad gangs, and the social problems perceived as resulting directly or indirectly from the banding system have recently been a topic of discussion in the local media. The Monitor believes that the banding system effectively denies a large proportion of Hong Kong students their right to a decent education.

The practice of banding students has a backwash effect on schooling at the primary and even kindergarten levels. The fact that Hong Kong puts many of its three-year-olds through the ordeal of a ‘kindergarten entrance exam? and that many primary schools also conduct their own ‘entrance exams?is a disgrace to the local education system. However, it can be largely explained by reference to the enormous pressure on primary schools to ensure that their students achieve high marks in the academically-oriented Primary 6 attainment tests, so that they can gain entry to ‘Band 1?or ‘Band 2?secondary schools. This is the priority for all parents, since entry to these schools puts their children on the track to university entrance, while failure at this stage virtually precludes any chance of a university education and the highly-paid jobs to which it gives potential access. Thus kindergarten students are forced to begin learning the rudiments of a foreign language before they can even speak their own language properly. Primary students are put through hours of English lessons every week, in the hope that this will secure them entry to ‘good?secondary schools. This attempt to teach students a foreign (as opposed to a second language) at such a young age is very unusual in other countries. Many educationalists consider it unwise to begin teaching students a foreign language until at least the later years of primary school ?unless the resources and the family or social environment exist for exposing young children to another language. In Hong Kong at present, a very large number of children emerge from primary school having learnt practically no English whatsoever, while the time spent attempting to teach them English has prevented them from learning other more basic and more valuable skills. The rigid division of secondary schools into an ‘English-medium?elite and a ‘Chinese-medium?mass - itself in effect a further manifestation of the banding system - exacerbates the problem of a narrowly academic bias in primary schooling.

The fact that play figures hardly at all in the curricula of most kindergartens and primary schools is directly attributable to the pressures resulting from the rigid, academically-oriented banding system, as well as the examination-driven local educational culture. The passive nature of most local students has frequently excited comment, but this should cause no surprise when it is remembered that students are conditioned from the age of three to sit and listen passively to the teacher. If we are to produce students who are intelligent, self-confident, and conscious of their rights and duties and those of others, then the whole structure of the education system must be reformed.

3. Conclusion and Recommendations

i) The Aims of Education

The Monitor feels that the statement of overall aims in Chapter 3.1 of the Consultation Document may be taken as a starting point for defining the objectives of education in Hong Kong, but that if these overall aims are to be fulfilled, greater emphasis must be given to the cultivation in students of a sense of autonomy and the confidence to think critically. Attempts to imbue in students a sense of their duties as citizens of the Hong Kong SAR and the Peoples?Republic of China must never take priority over the need to instill in them an awareness of their rights and obligations as individual human beings.

Indeed, students need to be taught that one of the most fundamental of their rights is the right to question and criticise authority. Criticism, not blind indoctrination, must be seen as the route to true understanding, whether of ethics, society, politics or history. For example, the fostering of patriotic sentiments among students, if it is to play any part in their education, ought to begin with the lesson that it is the duty of every patriotic citizen to criticise their government and hold it to account.

If the education system is to fulfill these aims, and to provide every child with the opportunity to realise his or her full potential - not simply in academic terms, but as a fully-rounded individual - then far-reaching changes must take place in the way schooling is organised in Hong Kong.

ii) The Banding System

The current banding system must be abolished entirely or radically reformed, so that students?educational futures are no longer determined by the age of twelve. An alternative to the present system may be a situation whereby students within the same school are divided into separate ‘streams?for different subjects, with frequent opportunities for students to move between ‘streams?as they progress through the school. For example, an individual student may be placed in the top set for Maths and the bottom set for English in Form 1, but may be placed in different sets for the same subjects in Form 2. In the same way, the practice of having English-medium and Chinese-medium ‘streams?for some subjects within the same school may provide a means of overcoming the current rigid and elitist divide between ‘English-medium?and ‘Chinese-medium?schools. These and other alternatives to the present system, which ease the pressure on students and allow for more flexibility, need to be urgently explored.

iii) Kindergarten and Primary Schooling

The elimination or dilution of the practice of banding should help to take much of the pressure off primary schools and kindergartens. Entrance examinations for kindergartens and primary schools should be outlawed, and the government should seriously consider taking over direct responsibility for the provision of kindergarten education, since commercial pressures on privately run kindergartens tend to push them towards more narrowly academic styles of instruction, as well as contravening government regulations on, for example, overcrowding. The importance of play at kindergarten and primary levels should be emphasised, and styles of pedagogy which foster children’s creativity should be energetically promoted. Moves towards whole-day primary schooling should be pursued with all reasonable haste.

iv) Pedagogy and Teacher Training

If the cultivation of creativity and critical thinking amongst Hong Kong students is to be achieved, then the pattern of interaction within local classrooms will have to change. Teachers must be willing and able to allow greater freedom of discussion within the classroom, while ceasing to rely on the notion of ‘correct ideas? The willingness to accept and recognize differing or conflicting viewpoints, which in turn requires the possession of a critical imagination, is essential to the preservation of freedom and democracy in any society. The cultivation of this willingness must be one of the key purposes of education, but it demands more sophisticated classroom management skills and a more flexible and open-minded approach to learning than many local teachers tend to adopt. These issues need to be urgently addressed through both pre-service and in-service teacher training.

v) Curriculum Content and Assessment Practices

A style of pedagogy that seeks to cultivate critical thinking needs to be reinforced by appropriate assessment procedures. It is futile on the one hand to promote open, inclusive teaching methods which encourage classroom discussion, while adopting assessment practices which require the memorisation of established knowledge and stipulate one ‘correct?answer to each and every question. In the same way, the handing down of semi-official, authorised interpretations in subjects such as ‘Chinese History?undermines the whole exploratory, questioning, critical ethos which the Education Commission apparently wishes to see underpinning Hong Kong’s education system. If this ethos is to be reflected in practice in the learning experiences of our students, then assessment practices which reward original thinking and analytical power must be preferred over those which simply test memorised ‘facts?and ‘correct?interpretations. Greater use in the future of individual and group project work, and continuous, school-based assessment may provide part of the answer.

vi) Class Sizes and Funding Implications

Such innovations in structure, pedagogy and assessment will inevitably place greater demands on teachers?energy and skills. If they are to stand a realistic chance of success, then average class sizes at both primary and secondary level must be dramatically reduced. It is extremely difficult for a lone teacher to do anything but lecture to a class of forty or forty-five students. For example, for one teacher to manage an open, orderly discussion in a class of this size, while ensuring that every student is given an equal opportunity to contribute, is almost a practical impossibility, especially given the inescapable time constraints. It is essential that class sizes be brought down to a level where the teacher is able to give more attention to individual students, and is able effectively to implement more open and inclusive pedagogical techniques.

This necessary improvement in the teacher-student ratio will require a very large increase in government funding for education over the long term. However, it should be noted that Hong Kong currently spends a far smaller proportion of its GDP on education than does any other comparable society in East or South-East Asia. The massive investment required, in terms of building more schools and recruiting more teachers, is likely to bring very significant economic returns in the medium and long term. However, no-one should seek to justify education reform in Hong Kong on economic grounds alone. The most fundamental purpose of education is to develop in young people a full awareness of what it means to be human. In this respect, Hong Kong’s current school system is signally failing, but as a society we have the resources to ensure that it succeeds in the future.

1999 (c) Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor